Has Google beaten Black Hat SEO?

By Simon Ensor
SEO 24.07.2018

Since its inception SEO has been plagued with a tarnished reputation. A long history of manipulative behaviour by more than just a few in the industry and a number of high profile Google updates have, in the past, highlighted the constant struggle against low quality spammy work.

Almost in conjunction with professional cycling, the years between 2011 and 2015 appeared to constitute a concerted effort by the ‘powers that be’, or more accurately the power that is (Google) to clean up the industry. Unfortunately, it’s safe to say that cycling has had less success than Google.

It is misleading to think that Google was trying to clean up the reputation of the SEO industry through spam fighting updates. Instead their crusade against spam was very much an attempt to get their own house in order. Sure, they wanted the SEO world to take note and change their ways but ultimately they care more about improving search results than the industry’s reputation (although ultimately they both achieve the same thing). The success of spam was having an adverse effect on their ability to deliver the very best organic results for their users. It was therefore in their best interest to wage war against those trying to cheat the system.

I must admit, the idea for this article was based more on a feeling that Google had broken the back of La Resistance and that the industry was taking a turn for the better. The genesis of this idea was a reference to Matt Cutts (former head of Google webspam) and a ‘what’s he doing now’ thought. As such, in the interest of objective facts let’s have a look at a number of the major spam related updates that have been released since 2011:

(Taken from Moz’s Google Algorithm Change History)

Attribution Update


Ads above the fold
Link warnings
EMD Update


Payday Loan


The Quality Update


Intrusive Interstitial
Fred Update

Note that Moz also reported on ‘packs’ of updates being rolled out by Google, almost on a monthly basis. The list above also does not include the multiple iterations of Panda and Penguin.

Now it could be argued that the list is biased. In my mind there is a difference between quality led updates and updates that are targeting spam. As an example, the Above the Fold update targeted websites with excessive advertising above the fold which impacted user experience. These websites were seemingly trying to increase ad revenue rather than manipulate the search results. Whereas the EMD update in 2012 was in response to the amount of low quality websites utilising exact match domains to rank.

The data is also warped by the core algorithm updates that allowed Google to rollout new updates and iterations of other updates much quicker then they were previously able to do – this ability started with what is known as the Caffeine update. Even back in 2015, Nate Dame wrote a piece on Search Engine Land about the decreasing frequency of Google announced updates. This did not mean that Google were releasing less updates, it just meant that they were not making as big a song and dance of it anymore.


Is it just language?

Between 2011 and 2013 there were multiple updates that actively targeted Black Hat SEO. Spam tactics were openly referenced to and denounced. As the years progressed, there was a noticeable change in rhetoric from the big G. The updates that followed were very much focussed on the quality of the user experience. There was less talk about article spinning or doorway pages and more about the quality of the website, how this impacts user experience and can improve your search visibility.

If you look at the content being produced nowadays by the major websites in the SEO field, it’s less about how to avoid spam and more of an acceptance that Black Hat SEO simply is not going to work. As the industry gains a relative amount of maturity (it’s still very fledgling) and has become more integrated with other marketing channels it has become clear that agencies are more focussed on how to provide results through genuine quality, rather than gaming the system.


Google no longer announce updates

Since 2011 Google have made countless updates to their algorithm, including what are known as core algorithm updates. As time has progressed, Google’s updates such as Penguin 4.0 have become the final iterations of their type. Updates that were released at specific points to wreak havoc amongst those engaging in manipulative behaviour have become archaic. Instead these became updates that simply ran in the background, and constantly improve. Google’s investment into A.I (or machine learning) has been no secret. As they have continued this investment, more and more updates are simply (we’re sure it is far from simple) baked into their algorithm, meaning that there is nothing to announce. No more 3.3, 3.4 style iterations. Instead we are left with an algorithm that is constantly updating.


Google no longer have an SEO figure like Matt Cutts

Matt Cutts’ time as head of Google webspam made him a household name in the industry. He was well known for video updates and practical advice for SEOs – although sometimes this backfired as in the case of suggested link building tactics that turned into a pandemic of spammy so called ‘grey hat’ blogs. Regardless though, when he took his leave of absence in 2014, his replacement was not even named by Google. Cutts was the figurehead for Google in cleaning up the SERPs and his absence (combined with Google reining back on publicly announced updates) seems to be reasonably coincidental with this drop in spam related updates. Or at least the amount of attention that these updates attracted.


It’s harder for Black Hat SEOs

An interesting point of view is that whilst there were definitely loop holes prior to 2011, these loop holes were all but closed over the coming years. This leads to a finite amount of options for Black Hat SEOs. Google has become very good at identifying spammy work and working to devalue said work. With updates such as Penguin transitioning to being near real time in 2016 and the daily updates from Google, the lives of those looking to cheat the system have becoming significantly harder. There is an interesting thread on Black Hat World discussing if they are able to adapt or if their tactics are dying out (a prime example of when to no follow an untrusted link!).

The reality is that the SEO industry will never be 100% spam free. There will always be those that try to bend the rules to gain a potential competitive advantage and those that just want to take short cuts. Nor is Google perfect at weeding out websites that are engaging in these tactics. We do come across sites which amaze us (because they are ranking well), but these are anomalies rather than the norm. As time marches on and Google continue to develop we can confidently say that these anomalies will become rarer and rarer.


Smarter Buyers

Google waged a very public war against spam. This not only influenced those practicing SEO within the industry, but also helped to educate the buyers. There will of course still be opportunities for agencies to capitalise on those that fail to do their research on the subject prior to purchasing a service, and we do not condone this. However, there has been a noticeable increase in knowledge amongst buyers over the years. SEO has become an integral part of a marketing strategy and the likelihood is that for established businesses and their associated marketing managers, this will not be their first rodeo. Lots of people have had their fingers burnt by the less scrupulous individuals in the SEO world, acting as a catalyst for increased knowledge of best practices amongst purchasers.


Google Updates in 2018 and beyond

So where does that leave us? From our point of view, Google did a pretty good job between 2011 and 2013 of making the SEO world change its ways through actively penalising those that stepped out of line. The publicity that was afforded to major spam fighting updates was critical in denouncing Black Hat SEO not only as a practice but perhaps more importantly, ensuring that it became a non-viable solution.

Quality is now the buzzword and main rhetoric amongst both SEOs and those at the big G that communicate their message to the digital marketing world. It is heavily focussed on providing the very best user experience and as such there has been a noticeable shift from tackling spam to a continuous improvement in quality.

Google have appeared to win their war against spam. They actively penalised Black Hat SEO and limited opportunities moving forward. Their education of buyers presented a war on two fronts, not only preventing spammers from yielding results but also running them out of business by crushing their market. Keyword stuffing and link directory spam may be a thing of the past, although a shift to quality led updates only represents an evolution of this crusade.

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